Given how effervescent the real-life best friends are, especially together, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which they wouldn’t be the life of the party. But a familiar feeling of uneasiness still swept over them when they began socializing in Los Angeles soon after graduating from New York University, where Konkle said they met through a summer program in “experimental weird theater.” They told themselves they weren’t cool or good enough to be at the parties. They asked themselves why they still felt as insecure as they did when they were tweens.
“You instantly revert to those feelings,” Erskine said. “You never really leave that age.”
Instead of wallowing, Erskine and Konkle channeled the feelings into their work. With their friend Sam Zvibleman, they explored the idea of revisiting middle school through a TV show set in 2000. And who better to play young Maya and Anna than Maya and Anna?
Aside from the unorthodox nature of 31-year-old women playing middle schoolers, “PEN15,” which premiered Friday, has a lot in common with other recent film and television fare. Whereas the enduring quality of John Hughes’s movies and shows like “Freaks and Geeks” prove that high school is a reliable setting for coming-of-age stories, middle school has increasingly become a popular playground. Erskine and Konkle’s 10-episode series employs the same sort of juvenile humor as Netflix’s “Big Mouth” — its title suggests as much — by poking fun at the pubescent worries hiding behind the kids’ jokes. It also evokes the same painful recognition in viewers as comedian Bo Burnham’s much tamer feature debut, “Eighth Grade.”
Like “PEN15,” Burnham’s film is brutally honest. Set in the present, it finds humor in the middle school hellscape, playing some of the anxieties that afflict 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) for laughs — stilted small talk with an unaware crush, for example, or earning the “most quiet” superlative award. But this endears Kayla to the audience. She creates motivational YouTube videos about “being yourself” that come off as a tech version of a mirror pep talk.
Inspiration struck when Burnham saw a young girl in a shopping mall taking selfies while seated alone on the edge of a fountain.
“Here was a girl that 95 percent of the time was in her head, worried about how she looked,” Burnham told The Washington Post in July. “And then in her falsest moment, as if being held hostage, she went up and immortalized herself.”
“PEN15” takes place long before Instagram came to be, but the root issue of young girls lacking confidence in their own bodies remains constant. Its creators found it both therapeutic and refreshing to dive into this particular issue, all these years later.
“We’re women, and we’re in this industry, and usually we’re not playing 13-year-olds with mustaches and weird eyebrows,” Konkle said. “The opportunity to not come from a vain place, which is so easy when you’re putting on your makeup and hair extensions — it was a real privilege to just be that.”
The first episode opens with Maya and Anna on the phone as they prepare for a popularity contest, also known as the first day of seventh grade. “I heard Connie M. grew double Ds her last night at camp,” Maya says matter-of-factly, adding that “it, like, happened in the middle of her sleep.” Anna brushes this off, but Maya takes it to heart.
The next morning, Maya tries to give herself a haircut while practicing a coy explanation in the mirror: “Yeah, I guess I did change a lot over the summer,” she says. Her mother refuses to let her daughter leave the house with an uneven haircut and sits her down for a good old-fashioned bowl cut — a traumatic incident, especially for a tween desperate to earn her peers’ approval.
“It’s a time that people don’t want to watch on television because it’s an awkward age,” Erskine said. “People are almost freakish looking, between adulthood and childhood. I always say it’s very operatic — it’s a time of extreme highs and lows, and all your firsts. It just felt so ripe for storytelling.”
Following the bowl cut incident, Anna serves as that source of validation for Maya. “It looks so good. Are you serious?” she assures her friend, swearing, “on your freaking life.” It doesn’t, of course, but the haircut and a retainer join Anna’s braces and constant hunching in painting an accurate depiction of kids around that age. It’s easy to ignore the fact that Erskine and Konkle are much older than the teen actors who surround them — but they don’t necessarily want you to forget. The comedic inspiration came from adult life, after all.
“To see an actual middle-schooler going through the traumatic experience is probably going to be dramatic,” Erskine said. “But if you’re seeing it through the eyes of adults and there’s enough distance for the viewer to place these characters, there’s room for it to be funny.”
Animation probably helps “Big Mouth,” a sitcom based on co-creators Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg’s tween years, get away with everything it does. It shares a crassness with “PEN15,” as both shows delve into material traditionalists might deem too risque for a TV show about this age group, including masturbation and hair growth of all kinds. (“Big Mouth” features mythical hormone monsters who guide the middle-schoolers through puberty and embody their bodily changes.)
But there’s also a charming innocence to how Maya and Anna handle such discoveries. The shared experiences, traumatizing or otherwise, strengthen their friendship. Despite their own hormone monsters occasionally pulling them in different directions — which happens, for instance, in an episode involving popular girls, cute boys and a single can of beer — Maya and Anna always find their way back to each other.
“We’re both still really close with our middle school best friends, and I found that best friendship again in adulthood with Maya,” Konkle said. “Not everybody is that lucky. That maybe is the optimism of the story, even though it’s dark and sad at times. These two loners have each other, and they are able to survive because of that.”